The Metronome should never be used to impose rigid time-keeping in preparation for performance, because you do not want rigid time-keeping during a performance. But the Metronome, used wisely, can be a valuable tool for discovering and solving a problem with rhythm or technique.
So, let’s talk about WHEN and HOW to use the metronome appropriately.
If you are playing the right notes, but your music just doesn’t seem to flow, you almost certainly have one or all of the following issues:
- You do not have a clear mental conception (aural, visio-spatial, kinesthetic) of what you want to play.
- Your conception/perception of the rhythm is distorted. In other words, you mistakenly think a note is “here” within the temporal framework of the piece, but it is really “there”.
- There is unnecessary tension or awkwardness in your physical execution that is upsetting your intended timing.
Playing along with a metronome can help diagnose the problem in two ways: First, by letting you know if you are playing the notes where in the metrical structure you intend to play them. Second, by highlighting places where a technical insecurity creates a tear in the canvas of time.
That said, use the metronome as needed while keeping the following points in mind:
Point #1. A mechanical metronome generates a series of undifferentiated clicks only. In other words, a mechanical metronome does not know and cannot tell you where “the 1” is. An electronic metronome, drum machine, or rhythm track that emphasizes “the 1” solves this problem. Otherwise, you have to fill in that blank yourself by COUNTING THE METER OUT LOUD (which is always a good idea anyway!).
Point #2. At extremely slow tempos, it is extremely difficult to anticipate when the next pulse will arrive because the metronome provides no rhythmic cues in-between the pulses. COUNTING THE METER OUT LOUD (for example: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &…) along with the metronome solves this problem.
Point #3. Don’t get “metronome-happy”. If the music does not sound or feel right, it might be because you are playing too straight! Turn the metronome off and see how it goes.
Point #4. COUNTING THE METER OUT LOUD is such a powerful awareness-builder that you should be doing it routinely anyway. In fact, the metronome may not be required at all. So, count the meter out loud while you are learning a new piece and see what you discover!
Point #5. When studying-practicing one hand at a time, also try “How to Study-Practice: The Drummer’s Trick“.
Point #6. While it is okay to play with the metronome in order to diagnose and solve a problem, the metronome and counting are just training wheels that should be abandoned as soon as you understand what you are playing and start to work on developing your interpretation.
Point #7. Music as-written can never represent the full expression of music as-performed. Playing with “good time” is measured by the coherence of fully formed musical ideas, not by the exact alignment of isolated events on rigid timeline. Such coherence comes from a unified expression of the entire musical phrase, NOT from machine-like precision. Natural-sounding music breathes and ebbs and flows… ever sensitive to the larger artistic context.
Point #8. Always record yourself and listen to the playback immediately. This is the best way to know if your musical intentions were met… and if what you think you heard and felt while you were playing is actually what happened. (learn more… How to Study-Practice: Feedback)
In summary, the metronome, used appropriately, can be a valuable teacher, but do not let it become a tyrant. Use it as needed to diagnose a blind spot with rhythm or to solve a technical problem, but do not become a slave to the ticker. The reason to be able to play accurately in time is so that you can go beyond robotic precision to play musically and artistically!